POLITICS
08/09/2015 05:38 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2015

El Paso Is Fighting To Reclaim The Border’s Soul

For the first time since 9/11, local leaders from both sides of the border ran side by side.

EL PASO -- Driving along El Paso’s Rim Road, which hugs the southern tip of the Rockies, it’s difficult to tell where Texas ends and Mexico begins. 

Looking down on the town below, a thick, black line marks the desert sand ahead in the distance, running over a hill into the emptiness beyond. It’s a fence, the very visible border that divides El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. Behind it curves the Rio Grande, a skeleton of its former self used primarily for irrigation once it hits Texas.

Mention that fence and you’ll have Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) in your ear. The fence, for O’Rourke, symbolizes all that’s wrong with outside perceptions of the border and what it’s like to live just across the river from Mexico.

“I’m really embarrassed by the fence,” O’Rourke told The Huffington Post. “We are the largest truly binational community in the world and our connection is our strength. Any attempt to divide that or separate it, especially with this awful fence the East Germans would be ashamed of, is the wrong way to go.”

While Republican presidential hopefuls debated Thursday night for the first time, arguing for more security on the border, and a higher wall, O’Rourke prepped for the highlight of the U.S.-Mexico summit he put together this week: a 10K race looping from El Paso into Juarez, and ending atop the Paso Del Norte Port of Entry.

O’Rourke aims to send a message that the border is far different than the image painted by candidates.

The race, held Saturday morning, was meant to signal all that has changed for the two border towns. O’Rourke, as well as local nonprofits, entrepreneurs and philanthropists, hope the race will help to redefine and reclaim the region they call home. It was the first time such a race has been able to be held since the Sept. 11 attacks, which ramped up security at the border.

The three-day summit, which concluded Saturday, involved cabinet officials from the administrations of U.S. President Barack Obama and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto; lawmakers from Mexico and the U.S.; the mayors of El Paso and Juarez; and the head of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The atmosphere in the two border towns throughout the summit was a far cry from that on the campaign trail.

“People want to see the wall built,” Ohio Gov. John Kasich said Thursday during the Republican presidential primary debate hosted by Fox News.

Business mogul Donald Trump took it even further when asked to defend his charges that the Mexican government is sending over “rapists” to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who called his comments horrible.

“This was not a subject that was on anybody’s mind until I said it,” Trump said. “The fact is, since then, many killings, murders, crimes, drugs pouring across the border are money going out and drugs coming in. And I said it, we need to build a wall and it has to be built quickly and I don’t mind having a big, beautiful door in that wall so people can come into this country legally. But we need, Jeb, to build a wall. We need to keep illegals out.”

Bush, on the other hand, stood by his comments that the vast majority of undocumented immigrants come to the U.S. out of “love” and because they “have no other option.”

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, like Trump, pushed for a more secure border, as did Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas). Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who is also running for the nomination, offered a bit more, arguing that the majority of people coming across the border are not from Mexico, but Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, before adding that the U.S. needs a fence because “people feel like we are being taken advantage of.”

Standing high on Rim Road against the Rockies, El Paso and Juarez spread across the desert below. 
Laura Barron-Lopez
Standing high on Rim Road against the Rockies, El Paso and Juarez spread across the desert below. 

The residents of El Paso and Juarez tell a very different story.

Empowered by a corrupt law enforcement system in Juarez, drug cartels and gangs killed, kidnapped, robbed and extorted many, leaving the city in ruin until residents, mainly the affluent and organized, pushed back.

Even during the height of the violence that plagued Juarez from 2007 to 2011, El Paso remained one of the safest cities in the U.S.

During the destruction, El Paso was relatively untouched, instead witnessing an influx of businesses and residents that left Juarez. Now that Juarez is returning to normal, some who left are returning home. Those who have stayed are experiencing a boom in business in El Paso, which is growing every day alongside the new opportunities offered by a safer Juarez.

Despite the violence, Juarez’s maquila industry -- large assembly and manufacturing operations -- didn’t falter. Workers were left alone and the massive plants owned by companies like Johnson & Johnson, Honeywell, Delphi and Flextronics were not harmed.

Though there has been a significant drop in violence in Juarez, a stigma remains, and it damages outsiders’ views of what living on the border is like.

“I don’t think the border region is sufficiently well understood outside of the border region, whether it’s in D.C. or in Mexico City,” said William Duncan, U.S. deputy chief of mission in Mexico. “Over time you are going to see the border as a barrier become less relevant to our lives.”

Whether one resident of El Paso stopped traveling to Juarez during the violence and another didn’t, or a native of Juarez moved away and another stayed, they all agree on one thing: Juarez is safer, and El Paso never stopped being safe.

Lydia Nesbitt is one of the people who never stopped working in Juarez during the violence. During the height of the turmoil, she worked at the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juarez as the director of industry relations, creating ties between students and major businesses through research, internships and continuing education. To Nesbitt, Juarez is now safer than the American cities of Chicago and Detroit.

Nesbitt now works for the Borderplex Alliance, an organization dedicated to bringing native El Pasoans that left for school or work back to the border region to help spur change and innovation. 

Many are already coming back, and some have never left. The reason: Texas exports more goods than any other state in the nation and El Paso firms exported roughly $21 billion in merchandise abroad just last year. 

Despite rapidly increasing commerce, trade and transportation of goods between the U.S. and Mexico, problems arise because of the way the border and those living in surrounding cities are viewed. At times, outside politicians have argued for militarization of the border, which would only hurt businesses, the economy of both cities, and the regular traffic of residents who work and go to school across the border. 

Some 600 to 1,000 kids legally cross the Paso Del Norte Bridge from Juarez to El Paso to go to school every day, according to Customs and Border Protection. And that’s only one bridge out of the four international bridges that enter into El Paso.

It’s a way of life for the cities and additional Border Patrol agents wouldn’t help, residents say. It’s Border Protection officers that are needed to expedite the flow of traffic and secure the legal ports that thousands cross from Juarez into El Paso. (Agents are those in green uniforms scattered across the vast desert along the border; officers are in blue, manning the thousands that legally cross at bridges and entry ports.)

The border fence dividing El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. 
Laura Barron-Lopez
The border fence dividing El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. 

It’s for those reasons that when O’Rourke took office in 2012, beating out incumbent Democrat Silvestre Reyes in the primary, he decided to change the focus of the U.S.-Mexico summit that Reyes had held annually.

The summit -- once a gathering of law enforcement leaders and only U.S. lawmakers and administration officials -- initially did not invite anyone from the Mexican side. The focus: security. 

At the last conference Reyes sponsored, guests included Raytheon, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and officials from the Drug Enforcement Administration and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

To hear local businesses, city and patrol leaders, and Mexican senators and cabinet officials tell it, O’Rourke is helping push dialogue toward reclaiming the border, and what it means to live along it.

O’Rourke joked that during prior conferences, American officials talked amongst themselves about “security, and security, and security.”

It’s a matter of deciding, O’Rourke argued, “who defines the U.S.-Mexico relationship.”

O’Rourke said the question will come down to if the U.S. wants the border and its nearby communities to be defined by those “responsible” for or residing in the area, like Mexican government leaders and American secretaries, or by “a reality television show star.”

In an effort to gain control, and awareness, O’Rourke ran through downtown El Paso on Saturday, into Juarez, and through its streets -- streets that try but cannot hide the last remnants from a time of violence, but also show signs of growing life.

The only indication that you had crossed the border into another country was the Paso Del Norte Bridge, which had Border Protection officers on either side, helping move the race along. In both El Paso and Juarez people cheered, one shouting, “Reunited and it feels so good.”

The loop passed the new Triple-A Chihuahua baseball stadium in El Paso -- a point of pride for the city -- and a towering cathedral in Juarez. Many mentioned over and over how “historic” it was that the race was the first one of its kind since 9/11.

The some 1,000 people who ran the 10K mounted the final hill by ascending the Paso Del Norte Bridge to cross the finish right on the border line. With one foot in Juarez, the other in El Paso, they paid little if any attention to the security presence and the fence in the distance splitting the countries in two.

“I am certain that in my lifetime the fence will come down,” O’Rourke said after the race. “And we will look back on it and realize that was a big mistake.”

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